Animated GIFs, Cinemagraphs, and Our Return to Early Cinema

Animated GIFs, Cinemagraphs, and Our Return to Early Cinema

Every couple of days I head over to Tumblr to check out my dashboard, which normally overflows with — no surprise to frequent readers of this blog — info about and images of Gene Kelly, Colin Firth, Jon Stewart, and Shakespeare. But hey, sometimes I also wake up to pics of Bogie and Bacall, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Hugh Laurie, Kenneth Branagh, Karl Pilkington, and the guys from Men of a Certain Age. So there.

While still photographs like this one of Colin Firth showering in coffee — sure, I’ll give you a minute — mostly decorate my Tumblr dash, animated gifs are becoming equally as prominent. And why not? With free, web-based create-your-own-animated-GIF programs like Gickr.com and Picasion as well as downloadable ones like GIF QuickMaker (for Macs) and Ulead GIF Animator (Windows), virtually any social network user may try her hand at creating these little moving pictures.

For those unfamiliar with the term, an animated gif is a “single graphic file that contains a series of images which are displayed sequentially to give the illusion of movement” (Motive Glossary). Basically, it’s the same thing that initiated the movies. Sure it is. Think back to your first cinema history course, when you learned about the zoetrope, that popular Victorian-era device that allowed users to view static pictures of a juggler or a bird as though he was moving. Gather ’round the kids, spin the wheel, look through the slats, and watch that dove fly, fly away.

 Or maybe you recall Eadweard Muybridge’s experiment? You know the one: in which a grisly looking photographer rustled up a horse, some trip wires, large cameras, and a racetrack and ultimately put to rest the age-old question, “Is there ever a time when all four feet of a galloping horse are off the ground?” (The answer: yes!) But more importantly, Muybridge put his still images (below, left) on a disc and then ran them through a zoopraxiscope to give them the impression of motion (below, right). This little experiment and device, you’ll remember from class, ultimately inspired Thomas Edison and his buddy W.K.L. Dickson to create the kinetoscope, also known as our first commercial film exhibition system.

Finally, to those who never took a film course: first, shame on you! Second, think back to third grade when you doodled stick-figures on the bottom right-hand corner of your notebook and then, when the teacher turned to scribble on the chalkboard, you flipped the pages to make those little people “move.” The animated gif: yeah, practically the same thing. TRIVIA: Like the zoetrope, these little flip or flick books also appeared during the late nineteenth century, originally called kineographs. You may watch one in action here.

In addition to their obvious purpose — to make still pictures move — animated gifs function like early cinema in several ways. First, as Lisa Nakamura points out in Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures on the Internet, both attempt to reproduce an experience, not a story. Indeed, spectators of early cinema or the “cinema of attractions” (1895-1907) were so enamored by the moving images before them that a conventional narrative with a beginning, middle, and end were unnecessary. As well, both early cinema and animated gifs are silent, exhibited in relatively private settings (e.g., kinetoscope, laptop/phone screen), and generally considered wastes of time. Finally, like many of the first cinematic peep shows, animated gifs loop until they’re clicked off (63-66).

So why this newfound interest in creating, posting, and sharing animated gifs on social networking sites? After all, these little moving pictures have been around since the early 1990s (e.g., AOL IM icons, that creepy dancing baby from Ally McBeal). From my research, the most frequent answer to this question — and often the only answer given since no one seems to know why we’re circulating them — is that they’re fun. Yes, at the basest level, for many people, animated gifs are simply fun, entertaining to look at. They can make us giggle, swoon, shudder, and laugh; they can remind us of a particular shot or scene from one of our favorite films or TV shows; they can capture a specific moment in time and loop it for all eternity, all in the name of fun. Here are some of animated gifs I’ve collected over the past year. I dare you to tell me they’re not fun.

Oh, to be that phone receiver.

I feel your pain, Jon.

A tremor in the Force.

Just a swangin’

Just a singin’ (and dancin’).

Parks and Recreation‘s Ron Swanson, hyped up on Snake Juice.

You tell the MPAA, Colin!

Aside from entertainment (and their small file size), surely there are other reasons animated gifs are currently so popular. One blogger claims it’s because they are nostalgic, reminding us of the “exciting frontier culture of the Internet’s early days” where computer users were exposed to a variety of images, “the wildest, most beautiful or most depraved things that the world has to offer.” Or perhaps we’re gravitating toward animated gifs because we’re living in the age of microblogging platforms like Tumblr and Twitter in which 140 characters are all we need to get our point across; in other words, video-shorthand “seems a similarly natural response” to these networks, some maintain. Finally, another blogger points out that perhaps this current interest in moving gifs derives from a progressive shift in the creative process. Again, like early cinema, the first animated gifs featured low resolutions and choppy transitions (MobileYouth). But now, as you can see below, they’ve become a stunning art form all their own.

Enter the cinemagraph. First attributed to photographer Jamie Beck and motion graphics artist Kevin Burg, cinemagraphs “combine still photography and video to ‘unfreeze’ a photo in time.” In essence, they’re more than a picture but less than a video, and significantly, because of their gif format, they could only exist and be appreciated online. So what do you think? First, are cinemagraphs and/or animated gifs in general art? And second, why do you think we’ve reverted to the days of early cinema, staring at and enjoying silent, plotless, moving images within a relatively private setting? Are we really that desperate to simplify our hectic, media-saturated, image-filled lives?

Need More?

Beck’s and Berg’s creations are posted frequently on their Tumblr, From Me to You.

And the Tumblr If we don’t, remember me hosts some lovely cinemagraphs of famous film scenes; I’ve concluded this post with a few of my favorites below.


“A boy’s best friend is his mother.” Psycho (1960)


“Whatever I photograph, I always lose.” Peeping Tom (1960)

“My whole life is pointed in one direction. There never has been a choice for me.” Taxi Driver (1976)

“I’m a Dapper Dan man!” O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

“I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)